By Rab Bruce’s Spider
The arguments which are currently being passed off as a debate on the EU Referendum don’t seem to have captured the imagination of the general public the way the Scottish IndieRef did in Scotland. Perhaps that is because most of the claims from the opposing campaigns are repetitions of the same old scare stories we heard during the IndieRef. The Tories are so accustomed to keeping the general public afraid of change that their only tactic is to produce as many scare stories as they can, predicting financial disasters and job losses.
Even when there is a reasonably sensible debate, such as the LBC Radio discussion between Alex Salmond and Ian Duncan Smith, it is hard to take any of it seriously.
After a great deal of reflection, I have come to the conclusion that this is because of two major factors and I must acknowledge that it was IDS who helped me reach this conclusion. This is because, while listening to him speaking passionately and sincerely about the issues he has with the EU, I recalled how passionately and sincerely he used to speak about his desire to help the Disabled and Unemployed while simultaneously going out of his way to cause significant harm to these very people. In other words, I find it hard to believe anything this unpleasant character says and the same goes for most of his fellow Brexit campaigners. If they are for something, my immediate reaction is to be against it.
Of course, that is not a very sensible way to decide how to vote on anything but, as for the EU itself, I remain ambivalent and I think this goes for a great many people. There are undoubtedly some serious issues with the EU, such as the neo-liberal thinking which dominates the money men and which resulted in the quite shameful and appalling treatment of Greece.
The biggest problem with the debate is, though, that IDS and his fellow Brexit campaigners have some easy targets. The EU has made mistakes and has problems which the Brexiters have pounced on and use to enflame passions. They quote misleading financial figures about the UK’s contribution, they cite the treatment of Greece, and they bang on endlessly about immigration, thereby pandering to the inherent racism which seems to lie at the heart of BritNattery. All of these are easy for the Brexit mob to point to and don’t need much explanation for even the politically ill-informed, so IDS and his Brexit pals have some nice, juicy topics to use as campaign drivers.
When it comes to the Remain side, most people are fed up of the same old financial scare stories and long for someone to make the positive case for staying in the EU. It is a sad reflection that the best attempts at this have been by amateur bloggers online whose audience reach is relatively small. The politicians have largely struggled to make the positive case and even Alex Salmond didn’t make all that great a case during the LBC debate although that was largely due to IDS talking over him at every opportunity.
The difficulty in making a positive case is perhaps because the advantages of the EU are often less immediately visible to the general public and are rather intangible when placed against such emotive topics as immigration and the disastrous results of the single currency project as far as countries like Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain are concerned. You can talk about the European peace that has remained intact since the end of the Second World War but that doesn’t mean much to many people except for the dwindling number who can still remember that dreadful war. You can mention workers’ rights and human rights but those are topics which many people do not consider important unless they are directly affected by the lack of them. Most voters know all about immigration and the Greek financial crisis because these are highlighted by the media but a great many are less aware of the rights they stand to lose if there is a brexit vote and Boris Johnson gets his way.
So I’m still not convinced of the positive case for remaining but there are some things I am pretty certain about. One is that, as with the Scottish IndieRef, all the dire warnings about the financial impact, whichever side is predicting disaster, should be ignored. Nobody knows what is going to happen whatever the outcome of the result. Let’s face it, the OBR can’t even forecast the UK’s Deficit figures six months ahead so there is no way they can predict anything with any certainty covering the next decade or so.
I’m also pretty certain that the right to travel and work anywhere in the EU is a good thing. The fact that this results in net immigration to the UK should not be regarded as too serious a threat since study after study has shown that immigrants, by and large, bring more benefit to the UK than they place a burden.
Trade is another good reason to stay. The EU’s single market may no longer be the UK’s largest export market but that doesn’t mean we should make things more difficult for our exporters, nor that we should place barriers in the way of those seeking to import many of the goods the British public have come to expect to see in their shops.
But what about the serious problems with the EU which we cannot ignore? Are they really serious enough to make leaving a genuine solution? Well, let’s take a look at some of them.
Immigration is the big bugbear of the xenophobes. You only need to watch BBC Question Time for a few minutes on any given week to recognise this. Personally, I’ve never disliked anybody solely because of their ethnic origin. Yes, I’ve come across some Asian people I dislike, just as I’ve come across some African, American and European people I dislike and a not insignificant number of Scots I dislike but, on the whole, I’ve found most people are pretty decent when it comes down to it, no matter where they come from. I refuse to hate someone based on their ethnic origin, so the xenophobic claims of the UKIP crowd leave me cold. As for the impact of immigration, I’ve already mentioned that most serious investigations show that the majority of immigrants contribute to our society and help boost the economy, so there really isn’t an economic argument against immigration, only a racist one.
As for the issue of Greece, I deplore the behaviour of the EU financial entities but they can’t pull the same stunt with the UK because the UK does not use the Euro. Greece’s economy simply wasn’t compatible with the single currency regime and the country’s population is now being punished for its previous Government’s errors. It is shocking and depressing what has been done to Greece but it can’t happen to the UK. That, I admit, smacks of an “I’m All Right, Jack" attitude and it can certainly be argued that voting to leave the EU because of the treatment of Greece would be morally justified. However, in practical terms, the UK leaving the EU won’t help Greece either. And if we are debating the merits of the EU in so far as they impact on the UK, then Greece and the appalling treatment that country continues to suffer under is not a material concern.
Another complaint by Brexit is that the UK pays money to the EU which it could spend on domestic things such as the Health Service. This is a rather strange argument when you examine it more closely. Every country pays into the EU. It’s like your golf club or gym membership. You pay in and you get certain rights in return but you don’t expect to make a profit. I would certainly prefer that there were more rigid controls over EU bureaucratic expenditure because too many people are on that particular gravy train but for Westminster politicians to use the UK’s contribution as a reason to leave the EU is very much a case of pot, kettle and black. I don’t for one minute think the saving in a contribution payment would benefit the NHS. You only need to look at how the Tories are slashing public expenditure to know our public sector wouldn’t see a penny of that money.
For anyone claiming to be a democrat, the undemocratic nature of the EU is one of the hardest criticisms to argue against. What is odd is that politicians who remain in favour of the unelected House of Lords in the UK are unhappy at the European Commission not being directly elected. Putting that aside, it is worth bearing in mind that the Commission needs to have laws ratified by the European Parliament which is elected. Part of our problem here is that, for some reason, the UK electorate has never really taken the EU Parliament all that seriously. How many of us know the name of our MEP?
Another issue for many of us is that the EU is so large that we feel remote from the decision making process which can appear faceless and bureaucratic and it is no wonder many of us feel helpless when confronted by rules and regulations we find irksome but had no idea were even being discussed, let alone brought into force. That, though, is a feature of the general lack of interest within the UK in what happens in the European Parliament. We tend to react to new EU laws only once they have come into force.
Speaking of EU legislation, Brexit claim that around 60% of our laws are imposed on us by the EU but, as Salmond pointed out in the LBC debate, this figure actually falls to around 13% when you take Westminster Statutory Instruments into account, these being documents by which the Government can pass laws without the inconvenience of having them debated in the House of Commons.
As for the EU laws themselves, the vast majority of these are in the areas of trade and social rights. Things like uniformity of safety standards on electrical equipment, roaming charges on mobile phones and Equality Rights stem from the EU.
AS an example of a proposed new law, the EU wants to set targets for a significant reduction in the number of deaths caused by air pollution. That sounds like a pretty good idea to me. However, it appears the proposals are to be watered down when the law is presented to the European Parliament because one country in particular has been lobbying to have the targets set at a lower level. Guess which country that is? Yep, it’s the UK, the same country that tells its citizens the EU imposes ludicrous red tape on us is happy for more of its citizens to die from air pollution because achieving the targets might be an inconvenience for British businesses. But in terms of the EU Referendum, air pollution is a silent and invisible killer, certainly less visible than the faces of the immigrants we are being told are at the root of our problems so , once again, the positive case for remaining in the EU to benefit from such socially progressive laws will not feature in any debate.
It must be admitted that there are some European directives which might seem unfair but, on the whole, they are not as bad as portrayed by the Brexiters.
So, as far as democracy within the EU goes, I’d like to see more of that and less money spent on wasteful bureaucracy but I’m not yet convinced that the current arrangement is grounds for walking out in a huff.
TTIP, that really scary treaty which masquerades as a trade deal, is perhaps the greatest single reason to disapprove of the EU but thinking Brexit will save us from its consequences is a mistake. Westminster panders to big business and would inevitably sign a TTIP-like deal with the USA at the drop of a hat.
So where does this leave us? Making a decision on how to vote based on the information we are being given is not an easy proposition. The positive case for staying remains rather woolly while the clamours for leaving are often proclaimed by politicians whose general views I find distasteful. That said, there certainly are some valid reasons for voting to leave and I’m sure many of my friends will do so and, quite frankly, it is difficult to argue against some of the concerns, the immigration question excepted.
Sadly, I suspect it could boil down to one’s outlook on life when it comes to deciding where to place that cross on Polling Day. If you are someone who looks outward, with an international perspective, knowing that it is possible to be immensely proud of your own nation but still recognise that people in other countries are not that much different to us even if they speak a different language or have a different colour of skin, then you will be of a like mind with a great many Scots who have always been keen on exploration, travel and trade. You might not like some of the more autocratic aspects of the EU but you will probably not feel as threatened by it as someone who is inclined to be isolationist, inward-looking and fearful of foreigners. That’s a fairly sweeping generalisation, I know, and not how I usually prefer to decide how to vote, but I think it lies at the heart of how many people will vote when it boils down to it.
Which leads me to another fairly minor but rather irritating point. During the LBC radio debate, the show’s presenter, Iain Dale, made a passing comment when the Scottish IndieRef was mentioned. His view, unremarked by either participant in the debate, was that the EURef was a larger issue than the IndieRef. Now, I know I am biased about this but it struck me that a vote which would have resulted in the breakup of a highly-integrated political union which has lasted more than three hundred years and which would have seen the creation of not just one but effectively two new nation states is perhaps more important than the withdrawal of one country from a largely economic trading block of which it has been a member for a little over forty years.
Perhaps what Iain Dale meant was that there are more people eligible to vote in the EURef but I didn’t gain the impression that was what he was implying. It seemed to me that he thought the EURef was more important because it affected his London audience more than Scotland leaving the UK would have done. Perhaps I am wrong and was simply being overly sensitive about a dismissive comment by a London-based media presenter but, for me, it was symptomatic of the self-centred, inward-looking view which seems to dominate in the London bubble, a view which goes a long way to explaining the appeal of Brexit for many people in the South East of England.
So, on balance, I’m still for remaining part of the EU, even if I might need to hold my nose as I put my cross in that box. And you never know, it might result in the ideal outcome for pro-Indie Scots because if England votes narrowly to leave but Scotland votes to remain and the Scottish votes edge the overall result in favour of remaining, you can be pretty sure Westminster will soon come up with a plan for Scotland to become independent. That would put the final nail in Gordon Brown’s claim that Westminster wanted Scotland to lead the UK, not leave it. If Scotland leads the UK to remain while England wanted out, they’ll want shot of us as soon as they can. It’s an unlikely scenario given the disparity in the number of eligible voters but we can always dream.